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Old 06-13-2012, 06:09 AM   #15
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FWIW, We went o the factory tour during ALumapalooza this year, and all of the aluminum sheets as well as the large plywood subfloor sheets are cut and drilled on a big computer controlled machine. The only hand work done as far as cutting openings is to ease and all ready there opening for fit. An example would be if the black tank didn't exactly line up with the machined hole in the subfloor when it comes time to mount the toilet. I would think this would be a huge improvement in quality control.
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Old 06-13-2012, 07:08 AM   #16
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While not excusing the poor workmanship in Airstream construction, if one has ever watched a home under construction, you'd be shocked. It is amazing what drywall, plaster and paint will cover up.

I think I read where Airstream builds around 1,000 units per year (if memory serves), so it is probably unfair to compare the level of engineering, fit, etc. to highly-automated car and pickup truck production. However, that doesn't excuse the construction debris left inside the units. It's almost as bad as the beer bottles, paper plates and plastic utensils I found protruding from the stucco behind the facia of our living room fireplace, years ago when our house was being built.

The quality and workmanship on a manufacturing floor is a direct reflection of the factory management. If quality isn't ingrained in the corporate culture as an essential value, the few with personal pride in workmanship will be lost in a sea of workers with mediocre production values; and quality will sink to the lowest level tolerated, probably the point where defects are so huge that they just can't be ignored.

Typically, manufacturing quality control centers around function, with a minimum amount of attention paid to cosmetics. Basically, if something works OK, then any "extra" quality is wasted effort and not worth the cost. Every dollar spent that makes a product "better" than it has to be, is one dollar less of profit.

I used to work in the computer manufacturing industry, and I spent a lot of time in printed circuit board fabrication. In rare instances, circuit boards had excess copper on the surface that wasn't completely removed during the etching process. If these areas didn't short out any circuits, we attempted to peel or scrape the copper off; otherwise, these patches were left on the boards. Consumers never saw this, and the boards functioned properly.

Unfortunately, this occurs on a much larger (and more visible) scale in RVs. Is this right? Is it tolerated? These questions can be debated on this forum, but the answers that count are the ones supplied by Airstream management. However, there is no justification for stuffing trash and debris in areas that will be covered up. That's not sloppy workmanship; it's unprofessional behavior, which directly reflects how workers view the product they create.

While manufacturing quality can be improved through engineering, the best design can be ruined in final assembly by a careless worker with a hand tool.
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Old 06-13-2012, 07:26 AM   #17
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Originally Posted by Phoenix View Post
While not excusing the poor workmanship in Airstream construction, if one has ever watched a home under construction, you'd be shocked. It is amazing what drywall, plaster and paint will cover up.

I think I read where Airstream builds around 1,000 units per year (if memory serves), so it is probably unfair to compare the level of engineering, fit, etc. to highly-automated car and pickup truck production. However, that doesn't excuse the construction debris left inside the units. It's almost as bad as the beer bottles, paper plates and plastic utensils I found protruding from the stucco behind the facia of our living room fireplace, years ago when our house was being built.

The quality and workmanship on a manufacturing floor is a direct reflection of the factory management. If quality isn't ingrained in the corporate culture as an essential value, the few with personal pride in workmanship will be lost in a sea of workers with mediocre production values; and quality will sink to the lowest level tolerated, probably the point where defects are so huge that they just can't be ignored.

Typically, manufacturing quality control centers around function, with a minimum amount of attention paid to cosmetics. Basically, if something works OK, then any "extra" quality is wasted effort and not worth the cost. Every dollar spent that makes a product "better" than it has to be, is one dollar less of profit.

I used to work in the computer manufacturing industry, and I spent a lot of time in printed circuit board fabrication. In rare instances, circuit boards had excess copper on the surface that wasn't completely removed during the etching process. If these areas didn't short out any circuits, we attempted to peel or scrape the copper off; otherwise, these patches were left on the boards. Consumers never saw this, and the boards functioned properly.

Unfortunately, this occurs on a much larger (and more visible) scale in RVs. Is this right? Is it tolerated? These questions can be debated on this forum, but the answers that count are the ones supplied by Airstream management. However, there is no justification for stuffing trash and debris in areas that will be covered up. That's not sloppy workmanship; it's unprofessional behavior, which directly reflects how workers view the product they create.

While manufacturing quality can be improved through engineering, the best design can be ruined in final assembly by a careless worker with a hand tool.

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Old 06-13-2012, 12:58 PM   #18
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Some thoughts on improving quality in manufacturing

"While manufacturing quality can be improved through engineering, the best design can be ruined in final assembly by a careless worker with a hand tool."

I had the opportunity to recently visit the factory in Jackson Center. Having worked with and overseen manufacturing operations across the globe during my business career, I was disappointed to see the absence of a "lean" manufacturing process and culture at the Airstream factory.

Most world class factories today utilize lean manufacturing processes. Successful lean factories develop a strong culture that values highest quality output, elimination of all forms of waste (materials, motion, time, energy), rapid cycle times, very low investment in work in process inventory, and a high commitment to customer satisfaction. Many lean factories have self directed work teams involving workers checking each other to ensure the product leaves the factory defect free. Another important characteristic of lean operations is a continuous feedback loop from customers and a relentless ongoing commitment to continuous improvement in the product and the operation. When a company decides to go "lean" it is a major undertaking that involving months and sometimes years of planning, engineering, training, cultural change, and a significant change in management thinking.

The rewards for a successful implementation are typically a highly motivated and efficient work force, industry leading quality of output (assuming the product design is also properly engineered), a significantly lower time requirement to produce the product, improvements in the quality of input from suppliers (lean factories push their suppliers toward excellence), a much lower total cost of production, and higher profitability for the organization. In my work I've observed western hemisphere factories with a 50% cost differential versus Asian factories transition to lean manufacturing and achieve total cost parity despite higher labor costs after the lean implementation.

Some characteristics of non-lean factories are inconsistent quality of output, wasted effort, high rework, excessive work-in-process inventories high cost, and sometimes poor employee morale. At Jackson Center I saw many operations where motion was wasted, many workers walking around trying to find materials, as well as excessive raw material inventories on the floor. The many posting on the forums, as well as the warranty work performed in the service center, attest to the inconsistency of output quality.

While a number of people on the forums have insinuated the labor force is just working for a paycheck, I did not see evidence of such an attitude. Instead I perceive the employee contribution is restricted by antiquated processes, misdirected management, and the traditional top down directed manufacturing culture. There may also be some design issues and quality issues with raw materials received from suppliers. Industry experience suggests a successful lean implementation at factory such as Jackson Center would reduce the total build cost of a unit by 20% or more, energize the workforce, and dramatically improve the quality of a finished unit.

When an organization implements lean processes, one of the first steps is creating a value stream map. This complete audit of every step of the manufacturing process, including the work of every work center, determines where the process adds value to the customer and where it contributes no value. To make it simple, the concept is that every time something is touched, cost is added. The question of the exercise is, "Are we adding value to the customer?" For example attaching a light fixture to the inside of a trailer clearly adds value and is something the customer is willing to pay for. However, if the shipping carton containing the light fixtures is handled 10 times between the time the carton is received at the factory and the time the fixture is installed, only one of the 10 times it is handled adds value. The other nine times the carton is handled are wasted. If you happen to be in Jackson Center this summer for a plant tour I encourage you to watch what the factory employees are doing and observe how much of their time and effort is or is not value added.

Value stream mapping allows management to reconfigure the processes so waste is eliminated. To share one simple real life example a distribution center in Canada audited its process. It found that the typical product was "touched" in some way 110 times between the time it was received on the dock from the factory to the time it was shipped to the customer. The VP of Operations and the distribution center manager were amazed to see the results of this audit. Within a year, the touch points were reduced to 13, the labor force was reduced by 25%, and the accuracy of the packing of outbound shipments improved from 97% to 99.6%. No capital investment was required, just a reengineering of the flow of product and significant retraining of the work force to eliminate wasted activity. This and other real world experiences make me believe a company such as Airstream, that likely cannot afford significant capital investment in automation, can achieve significant savings and realize a much higher quality output by aggressively implementing a lean approach to its manufacturing operations.

The major obstacles to a successful lean implementation are 1) knowledge (consultants can be hired to bring in the knowledge), 2) discipline and commitment of management (this requires internal leadership), 3) cultural resistance to change (can be overcome through training and inspired leadership). In addition, the first year of implementation usually increases costs due to the reconfiguration efforts and high training costs so the company must accept short term pain for long term gain. If the implementation is successful, these costs are recouped quickly and many times over.

I apologize for the length of this post but I am enthusiastic about the subject and its potential to take a company such as Airstream to a new level. To make one last important point, I mentioned above the ongoing process of improvement after the implementation. Airstream is fortunate in having easy access to multiple communication streams about its product (dealers, Airforums, the service center at Jackson). If Airstream had a lean culture it would use this feedback to continuously reevaluate the design of the product as well as the activities in the production process contributing to quality failures. These evaluations would be and implementation of process improvements would be rapid as lean organizations don't waste time. Whereas the traditional manufacturing organization views such improvements as added costs, the lean organization typically views them as challenges and opportunities to improve customer satisfaction. Not surprisingly, lean organizations are frequently able to creatively devise process improvements to improve customer satisfaction with products while not increasing the total cost of the product. Fixing a recurrent quality issue may simple be a situation where the addition of a dollar in cost per unit in the production process eliminates a $5.00 per unit in warranty costs.

One can hope lean manufacturing hits the radar screen in Jackson Center. The payoff for the customer, the workforce, the brand, and Thor Industries would be amazing. No doubt Wally, who viewed continuous improvements as positive, would enthusiastically embrace having a 21st century lean manufacturing operation.
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Old 06-13-2012, 01:32 PM   #19
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Great post from Chuck!! Can't understand why Airstream / Thor wouldn't be already studying this for implementation, if only to increase profits, not to mention reducing cost of warranty work & not having to listen to customer gripes. Thanks Chuck.
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Old 06-13-2012, 02:07 PM   #20
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Chuck,

JC not that far NC, have you submitted your Resume?

Great post!!

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Old 06-13-2012, 02:11 PM   #21
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One poster said 1 month of work. Okay, assume AS hired a person to go in and spend 4 hours per evening for a month (88hours) cleaning after the day's shift of construction. At $100/hour that would add $8800. Worth it? In my example, do you think it would take a trained person 4 hours/day to CLEAN UP after a 8 hour shift of construction? Would the loaded rate for cleaning be $100/hour? Well, I do not think it would be $8800. I think more like a Maximum of $2000. and anyone looking at a new airstream would pay that.
I would think it would take an hour a day, at the most, to clean up the AS. And it's more like a $10-$15 hour job at the most. so your talking $500 for a little clean up. Plus you could get high school kids to do it for even less..

In fact it would probably take the factory workers 15 min. or less to pick up their won dam mess every day.
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Old 06-13-2012, 02:25 PM   #22
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Chuck, well presented. Can we have you consolidate our comments and complaints into a coherent plan and take them to the Jackson Center for implementation?

Maybe, we need to take a poll to see how much Airstream stock we all own to see if we cumulatively have enough shares to takeover the factory (just kidding).

Wow, that would be a big can of worms. I can fix the little defects in our Bambi, but can you imagine what a task it would be to correct all of our problems at the same time?

Now, I have a headache...
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Old 06-13-2012, 03:11 PM   #23
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I thoroughly enjoyed reading Chuck's post. While technically retired, I still consult with companies seeking new business in the field I worked, not necessarily in operations, except as they relate to achieving a new contract. But, my view is his observations are more than just excellent - they are probably spot on - because they are universal in application.

And, the problem is likely somewhere in management, whether on the floor or up in the "head shed." I think that, most likely, the folks who are building these units want to do a good job. Maybe I'm still naive, but I believe that is human nature, at least at the outset. But, if you become jaded, feel no one appreciates your efforts, or maybe are even jumped for "spending too much time" on a supposed action you are trying to "get right" (getting the toilet to fit in the mis-placed computer-generated hole!) then I think workers either quickly, or over time, tend to realize their own ideas of quality don't match the boss'. The culture is either one of "good enough" or, one of "good enough never is." From Friday's and others posts about both new and old ASs of all kinds, it appears at Airstream maybe it is the former.

The one quick fix to many of those "touch" or time issues can simply be a good first line supervisor (supported from above) who asks the work team/crew "How could we streamline this?" or "What could we do differently to make this better?" Having the people who do the work become part of the solution is a good management technique, in my view -- and cheaper than consultants sometimes (at least to get the low-hanging fruit). But, it takes managers to want that outcome for it to happen.

Of course, it's hard to diagnose the patient from afar, but I'm always reminded in these instances of that old Army adage: "There are no bad Regiments; only bad Colonels."
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Old 06-13-2012, 03:23 PM   #24
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I appreciate the kind responses to my epistle on lean manufacturing.

Jason -- One powerful thing about lean is the cultural change that ultimately results in the employees driving the continuous improvement process. When employees have pride in their work and take ownership of the process through self directed teams, they won't allow products to leave the factory with shavings on the floor. They also won't tolerate messy work stations. For the past two years I've been consulting with a lean automotive component plant in the Dominican Republic. You could eat off the floor while assembly operations are in process even though its operation is both complex and inherently dirty. The employees and management take great pride in both the appearance of the plant as well as the quality of products made to very exacting specifications. The defect rate is less than one per million and production costs continue to decline despite a significant spike in raw material costs since 2009.

Robert Cross -- With respect to taking on new projects, I've been trying to retire for two years so DW and I can enjoy our new to us 2008 Safari, particularly since we now have the leaks and floor rot repaired (at Jackson Center). There are a number of good people helping companies do successful lean implementations. I'm sure Airstream will be able to find someone up to the challenge if they ever decide to take it on.

Phoenix -- The challenge for Airstream is not as daunting as it seems if they attack in the right way. The great thing about a good lean implementation is the snowball effect once the culture begins to shift. Things really start to happen. I'm guessing Airstream could see dramatic results after a year of hard work and could be realizing most of the benefits by the end of the second year.

One of these days I'll post my thoughts on "managing the Airstream brand". I started my career in marketing so I have some definite opinions on this subject as well. Delivering consistently high quality product from the factory is absolutely critical for a premier brand. Without consistent quality it is difficult to put together a brand strategy, much less a compelling marketing message.

Like most of you I find the forums addictive. Few companies have access to this type of customer feedback. Many great brands spend millions of dollars on customer research to get information that isn't nearly as complete and insightful. I do hope Airstream listens and has a good internal process for evaluating the feedback. While we may be frustrated with what seems to be a lack of responsiveness from management, my years managing both public and private companies gave me a great appreciation for the fact it always looks easier on the outside than it actually is when you are charged with making it happen on the inside!
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Old 06-13-2012, 05:07 PM   #25
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Oh yes, we were there to tour the factory too. Good grief, women doing nothing but taking stickers off slowly one piece at a time, no rush here, I guess she isn't pd. by the piece. ( I want a job there).
Then there are the guys using several air tools having to disconnect from the air hose for each application, then connect another tool rather than have each tool connected to a separate hose, saving time, exertion and frustration. That would be too easy. There were so many more issues it would take all evening to list them.
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Old 06-13-2012, 08:43 PM   #26
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Chuck, Airstream should send you a check just for your post and a new Airstream if they put your ideas to work! Your observations are laser sharp.
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